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Movie Review

Mr. Popper's Penguins

‘Penguins’ and the joker

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / June 17, 2011

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In “Mr. Popper’s Penguins’’ Jim Carrey gives a brave, naked, and quite possibly insane performance as a down-and-out male nymphomaniac who misplaces his pre-coital stimulant. Oh, pardon me. That’s “Mr. Penguin’s Poppers,’’ and it doesn’t appear to exist. Oh, well. “Mr. Popper’s Penguins’’ is certainly real, even though everything about it is synthetic except for the occasions in which Carrey can rouse himself from the somnolence of family-movie slop.

He’s drifted into the corporate-dad mode that’s ensnared Fred MacMurray, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, and Nicolas Cage, and requires a star to mug or mope or go manic to play a guy who risks his job in order to make amends with his kids then risks the kids to make amends with the job. There’s an ex-wife to re-woo, a big client to impress, and much nonsense to explain to the family and the boss (though never to us, since the nonsense is why we’ve come in the first place).

At the risk of stating the obvious, the subject, this time, is penguins. Tom Popper, the high-powered real estate developer Carrey’s playing, gets a refrigerated box at the door of his Roche Bobois-furnished Manhattan penthouse. Then another arrives. Before long he has six waddling roommates (Loudy and Bitey and Nimrod, etc.) and a neighbor threatening to call the condo board.

This is a flavorless adaptation of Richard and Florence Atwater’s 73-year-old children’s book about a poor family who, to make some money and keep their home, builds a circus around their new pets. The movie builds side plots around Tom’s longing for his absent explorer father (the penguins are dad’s parting gift) and a grand dame’s plans to unload the recently shuttered Central Park restaurant Tavern on the Green, possibly to the greedy developers Tom works for. I guess “Mr. Trump’s Penguins’’ was a bridge too far.

Jim Carrey has entered that “isn’t everything adorable’’ phase of his career. He shares this new movie with children, animals (natural and not-so), and old people. Philip Baker Hall, William Charles Mitchell, and Dominic Chianese play the partners at his firm; Angela Lansbury plays the grand dame. He even donates a bunch of scenes to the cute Ophelia Lovibond, who play’s Tom’s alliterative assistant. It’s all a shameless bid for a more innocent audience. But it’s when the devilish old Carrey materializes that the movie — which Mark Waters directed and is credited to three screenwriters — dares to be more than a greeting card. He squawks and mugs and flails. He mocks the bosses he hopes will make him partner. He’s reckless and bad. The devil is fun.

Maybe without quite realizing it, Carrey is embroiled in a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde drama. He wants to color within the lines of a complete character but still needs to feel the snap of breaking a role without being sent to the outtake reel. Here when Carrey elongates his already gaunt face, wears a wool overcoat and slicks back his hair (you know he’s snapped when the gel holding it in place wears off), he looks well on his way to being able to play a youngish Montgomery Burns in a live-action “Simpsons’’ movie. But “Mr. Popper’’ backs Mr. Hyde into schmaltz.

Some men would have handed half a dozen gentoo penguins to the overeager, needlessly shady zookeeper (Clark Gregg) pestering Tom. Or they would have phoned up an adventurous, particularly unscrupulous star chef. Tom holds onto them because they make his whiny son and moody daughter happier to spend the night. It’s hard to tell nowadays whether we’d be more shocked by penguin tenderloin or irreversible divorce.

For us it’s not much of a contest. Carla Gugino plays the former Mrs. Popper, and she doesn’t make calamitous belly-slides down the spirals of the Guggenheim Museum or defecate into a toilet on command. She just looks at everything with love, drops off the children, and lets Carrey win her back. By the end of this movie, if there were any fairness in the world, she’d be the one released back into the wild — not the penguins.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter @wesley_morris.

MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS

Directed by: Mark Waters

Written by: Sean Anders, John Morris, and Jared Stern, adapted from Richard and Florence Atwater’s book.

Starring: Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, and Angela Lansbury

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 95 minutes

Rated: PG (mild rude language and some potty-trained penguins)

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